View along a canal in Birmingham, with canal boat and industrial buildings.
A view along a canal in Birmingham © Historic England, Pete Herring
A view along a canal in Birmingham © Historic England, Pete Herring

Understanding Industrial and Infrastructure Heritage

Our research helps us and others to understand, manage and protect England's internationally important industrial heritage.

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Understanding, managing and protecting England's internationally important industrial heritage is a significant element of the Historic England action plan.  The developing programme reflects those important areas where our finite resources are best deployed and much needed.

Industry transformed England's society and rural and industrial landscapes, mostly in the last three hundred years, but in places as long ago as the medieval period and beyond.  England also saw major developments in transport, such as roads, canals, railways and other transport systems. Being an island nation it also has significant maritime industrial, transportation and communication complexes.

Much of this heritage is strictly functional, but some was meant to impress and has striking design and architecture; much is beautifully functional and some is sublime in its scale, complexity and impact.

Historic England plays an important role in caring for the country’s industrial and transport heritage: protecting it through designation, conservation and the management of sustainable change. All of this work is built upon the understanding derived from various forms of research, principally historical, architectural and archaeological.

As well as drawing upon our own resources, we will engage with professionals and interested individuals in the sector, calling upon their knowledge and expertise. We will also give guidance where it is needed, encouraging, and defining areas for training. We will support voluntary activities and preserved sites where we can.

We concentrate our resources on those areas or themes that are especially vulnerable and poorly understood.  Our current research priorities include assessing the significance and character of the following aspects of industrial, transport and infrastructure heritage.

  • Infrastructure extends to other facilities that our modern world depends upon, whether they support industry, trade or other social and economic activities. Often provided by central or local government, it usually developed particular distinctive forms that are again vulnerable to removal on redundancy or replacement during upgrading.  The current Government focus on infrastructure, and the high levels of public and private investment envisaged into the medium term, means this will play a significant part in future projects, whether it be understanding the significance of  electric power generation and supply or our road and rail networks, in the face of updating and restructuring, or understanding what should be protected in the face of change in the water and sewage, or gas industry.
  • Twentieth-century industry is increasingly in need of research and assessment, to clarify where its significance lies and how best these assets should be managed.  Much of this heritage is under-appreciated and is vulnerable to being swept away by new generations of the same industry. The petro-chemical industry is an example of this.
  • Transport and communications, crucial to industry, trade and commerce as well as to other activities, from the movement of armies to the facilitation of leisure. We will concentrate on aspects of canal, rail and road transport that have received the least attention and will also address the modern infrastructure of telecommunications.
  • Ports, dockyards and harbours, and especially those that were designed to support trade and maritime industry (including ship and boat building and repairing and the industries of the sea and estuary such as fishing).
  • Water management may include the harnessing of the power of tides and flow (weirs, leats, races, etc) in generating power for an enormous range of mills, supporting agriculture and light and heavy industry. It manages spreading of fertilising silts through water-meadows and for watercress beds, and protects populations and resources from flooding.
  • Traditional small-scale industry, including early ‘proto-industry’ from before the full industrial revolution,  and its associated housing, where new technologies were part of increased investment in activities that had previously been local or specialist crafts. There is some research already published, but for conservation management purposes this needs adding to and synthesising, and conclusions drawn.
  • Mining and mining settlements, simple terms concealing enormous variety, including the materials extracted, the processes by which they were dressed or processed, the date, scale and success of working.
  • Industrial landscapes - many of our rural and urban landscapes have been shaped and transformed by the presence of industry or through the process of industrialisation.  From the upland areas of England through to the growth of our towns and cities, industry has left an indelible mark on the present day landscape.  Some of these broader themes, such as workers' housing, which is one of the least understood and most vulnerable areas of the industrial past, will be explored.

Research questions and impact

Research will have impact if it helps to improve our techniques, to understand in detail the origin, range and diversity of our industrial and infrastructural heritage and its influence and effect on the wider landscape. It will establish the most significant elements, which we should try to preserve as part of new development where change is inevitable.

Research questions that will help our mission include:

  • How can large and complex 20th-century industries, transport and infrastructure, including ports and harbours best be recorded and understood if they cannot be preserved?
  • Which extractive industries and their associated communities are less-well understood and under-represented in heritage records?
  • What is the distribution, character and significance of workers housing related to different industries, and how much of it is under threat?
  • What has worked well and less well where industrial heritage has inspired the regeneration of buildings and places for housing and retail?  How can similar approaches be successful where market prices are depressed?
  • What will the impact be of the transition from carbon-based to renewable energy on, existing sites for coal, oil and gas extraction and processing, power generation, and transmission?